Through the Bible: Genesis 1:1-2

Well, this is way out of order, isn’t it! Genesis 1 was not next on the list!

I am going to get back to Isaiah. Today, however, I was reading Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis, a 1600-year old book, which fortunately has been translated to English much more recently than that. I don’t speak Latin.

There were two things that caught my attention in what I was reading, and so I’m passing them on to you.

1. The Trinity in Genesis 1:1-2

The thought that all three persons of the Trinity are found in the first two verses of Genesis is not new to me, and it will only be new to a few of you. Augustine threw in a little twist, though, that I’ve never heard before. Modern commentators disagree with him (for good reason), but the twist is so interesting that I have to share it with you.

Finding the Trinity in Genesis 1:1-2 can be difficult for us moderns, but it was glaringly obvious to early Christians. They were absolutely confident that Proverbs 8:22 was the Son of God speaking:

The Lord made me the beginning of his ways for his works. (LXX, which is the translation early Christians would have used, most of them being Greek speakers.)

This verse especially gave them the idea that Jesus not only was begotten of God in the beginning, before even the beginning began, but that he was "The Beginning." Of course, it helps that this was so commonly taught in the early churches that it would just have been an accepted teaching. No early Christian would have had to dig that out of Proverbs 8:22 on his own.

So when Genesis 1:1 says, "In the beginning, God … " early Christians immediately saw two persons of the Trinity. There was The Beginning, the pre-incarnate Son of God, and there was God, the Father. (Remember, until A.D. 400 or so no one had forgotten that "For us there is but one God, the Father," which is found in both 1 Corinthians 8:6 and the creeds [Apostles and Nicene]).

The Spirit is mentioned directly in verse 2, so there are all three members of the Trinity before God ever says, "Let there be light."

Here’s the twist Augustine added. I couldn’t find anything like it in the pre-Nicene writings. (Augustine’s time as a church leader and writer was almost a century after Nicea, A.D. 391 – 430.) I forgot to bring the book with me, so I’ll just have to tell you about it rather than quote him.

Augustine quoted John 8:25 this way:

Then they said to him, "Who are you?" And Jesus said to them, "The Beginning, just as I said to you."

I looked up a lot of translations when I saw that, and none agreed with Augustine. They all rendered it something to the effect of, "I am what I have been saying from the beginning."

So then I looked up the Greek. I’m not a qualified Greek scholar, but I do know the difference between accusative and nominative, and "the beginning" is in the accusative. That means it is being used as something other than the subject of the sentence. It seemed to me that if Jesus meant to say, "I am the Beginning," then he would have had to say η αρχη, not την αρχην. So I looked up some commentators, and they all agreed, though if I remember correctly, none of them mentioned that Augustine had quoted it that way.

Augustine didn’t learn Greek till later in life, and he was never exceptional at it (says the introduction to On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis). I don’t know how to check on the Latin version that Augustine was reading, so I don’t know what it says. I believe the end note in Literal Interpretation of Genesis suggested that is where he got it.

Anyway, Augustine’s rendering of that verse was really interesting, even a little exciting, to me despite the fact that the facts stop me from being able to agree that Jesus called himself The Beginning in John 8:25. (Many people, however, including me, believe he called himself the "I Am" in 8:24 and certainly in 8:58).

2. What Is a Literal Interpretation?

The book I am reading is volume 1 of eleven volumes that Augustine wrote on the "literal interpretation" of Genesis.

He begins the book with one of my favorite quotes because it shoots down our modern, highly literalistic approach to Scripture.

In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according too a figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense.

In other words, when it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures, the figurative interpretation is the primary one. Whether or not there is also a literal and historically accurate interpretation in addition to the figurative interpretation is for us to search and find out.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that Augustine begins his voluminous commentary with this statement, all eleven volumes are devoted to the "literal" interpretation of Genesis chapters one through three.

I have to pause here to say wow. Eleven volumes on three chapters of Scripture. Wow.

Okay, onward.

It becomes clear very, very quickly that Augustine’s idea of literal and historically faithful is not our idea of literal and historically faithful. As an easy example (a harder one’s coming), here’s what he says about the "days" of Genesis 1:

What kind of days these were it extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible, for us to conceive, and how much more [difficult] for us to explain!

That’s actually from The City of God (11:6) which he began writing over the last two years that he was writing Literal Interpretation of Genesis.

So literal and historically faithful interpretation for him does not include turning the days of Genesis one into 24-hour days, which is the only interpretation most westerners are willing to call "literal."

Here’s some other literal interpretations he finds in the first two verses of Genesis. These he only proposes as possible, not certain, but he is proposing these as literal, not figurative.

  • The heavens and earth is an unformed mass of matter that would be used to form the sun, stars, moon, earth, and all living things through the almost impossible to interpret days of creation.
  • The heavens represent spiritual matter that will become spiritual beings, including spiritual men. The earth is the matter that will be formed into physical things (and animals).
  • The waters over which the Spirit brooded is unformed matter, which is like water in just being one big unsorted mass. Augustine specifies that the water should definitely not be understood as water by the student of the Word.

These are all "literal" interpretations taking the text as a "faithful record" of what happened.

All of that was too interesting for me to forego sharing those with you.

Have a great day!

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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